Down and Out in Beverly Hills and Ruthless People, reviewed by Joe Blevins and Craig J. Clark

By Joe Blevins and Craig J. Clark

"And you may know how little God thinks of money by observing on what bad and contemptible characters he often bestows it." -- THOMAS GUTHRIE (1865)

Disney's making dirty movies!

Well, no. Not really. But that was the consensus among prudes, alarmists, and moral watchdogs alike in the mid-1980s when the Walt Disney Company began financing a series of R-rated movies through a then-fairly-new subsidiary of theirs called Touchstone Pictures. Never mind that the hallowed "D" word never appeared anywhere in these films' credits or advertising. The evidence was clear: a bastion of good, clean, wholesome family entertainment was now up to its mouse ears in the smut racket. Won't someone please think of the children?

I can still remember then-also-newish Disney CEO Michael Eisner appearing on ABC's 20/20 and squirming genially as a reporter showed him a particularly risque clip from of one of Touchstone's latest offerings, Down and Out in Beverly Hills and asked him if this sort of thing was appropriate for Disney to be releasing. The clip involved Richard Dreyfuss as a wealthy married man having adulterous sex with his maid while the family dog watches through a window. To make matters worse, the maid was actually on top during said fornication, a clear breach of missionary-position-only sexual protocol. (NOTE: This was long before Disney actually owned ABC. Wonder if the same kind of story would air on 20/20 today?) Eisner's answer, as you might guess, was political. Down and Out, he faux-cheerfully explained, was not really a Disney movie per se, at least not in the Bambi/Snow White sense. It was just an adult-oriented comedy which happened to be financed by the Walt Disney Company. That's all.

Disney, you must remember, had spent much of the 1960s and all of the 1970s flooding the film market with gimmick-laden, low-ambition "family comedies" aimed at the notoriously undiscriminating kiddie audience. Think: lots and lots of Herbie sequels and cute-animal flicks. As a result, the term "live-action Disney movie" was not exactly synonymous with "quality," and even that particular teat had run dry by the end of the Carter years. Disney continued to make live-action films in the 1980s, but these tended to be adventure and fantasy stories, like Tron and The Journey of Natty Gann. The only way for Disney to make live-action comedies and dramas that adults might actually pay money to see was to do so under another name. Ergo, Touchstone. And the gambit paid off beautifully with a string of well-received, financially-successful pictures. Today, the familiar circle-and-lightning-bolt insignia of Touchstone is just another meaningless corporate logo, imparting nothing of significance to the average moviegoer. But for a few years there in the mid-to-late 1980s, Touchstone Pictures was something of a brand name to critics and knowledgeable audiences alike, much as, say, Judd Apatow's name is today. A Touchstone comedy was generally expected to be a little sharper, a little fresher, a little funnier than the average multiplex offering. The company even had its own stable of stars, veteran film and TV performers who appealed more to parents than to kids: Richard Dreyfuss, Danny DeVito, and of course the Queen of Touchstone herself, Miss Bette Midler, who vaulted back into stardom with her appearances in Down and Out in Beverly Hills and Ruthless People, both released in 1986.

Like Disney itself, Bette Midler was in sore need of a comeback by then. After battling with her director Don Siegel and co-star Ken Wahl on the set of 1982's megaflop Jinxed!, Midler -- fairly or unfairly -- acquired a reputation as being "difficult," which in Hollywood is often a career-ender. And keep in mind that back in the mid-1980s, Midler was still mainly known as a singer with a campy, somewhat vulgar stage act, beloved by gay men more than by suburban housewives. Who knows what caused Disney to decide it absolutely had to be in the Bette Midler business and sign her to a six-picture deal? But that's just what they did. Bravely, Bette did not shy away from her diva reputation in these films but instead capitalized upon it. In both Down and Out and Ruthless, she essentially plays The Wife From Hell. Her characters are pampered, spoiled, demanding women with loud voices, expensive tastes, and fed-up husbands. (Weirdly, both these women are named Barbara -- a possible reference to Barbra Streisand?) I was slightly too young to have seen either of these films theatrically, but they were easy enough to track down on home video. I remember basically liking both of them at the time (Ruthless a little more than Down), and I was eager to return to them in 2010 to see how they'd held up over the years and what they could tell us about the era in which they were made. What I found was rather astonishing.

Down and Out in Beverly Hills is truly one for the time capsules, a compendium not just of 1980s clothes, music, and architecture (though there's plenty of all three on display) but of quintessential '80s values, concerns, and hang-ups. If you want to know what the decade was all about, skip the phony recreations like The Wedding Singer and Hot Tub Time Machine and head straight for this movie. Appropriately, it was directed by Paul Mazursky, who had previously captured the ever-changing American zeitgeist with Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and An Unmarried Woman. Down and Out is a textbook example of what's known as a comedy of manners, a comedy which seeks to parody the foibles and failings of the fashionable classes -- in this case, the free-spending nouveau riche of Beverly Hills. When we reviewed Superman III for this project, I wrote about how 1980s movies tend to focus on the clash of different cultures (often social classes) and our love-hate relationship with money. I can't think of a better illustration of that than Down and Out, which is all about money and culture-clash. (Heck, even the DVD menu has little dollar bills to indicate chapter numbers!) The plot -- borrowed from René Fauchois's play Boudu sauvé des eaux -- tells the story of Jerry Baskin (Nick Nolte), a bedraggled vagrant who, having been abandoned by his dog Kerouac, tries to drown himself in a swimming pool owned by clothes-hanger tycoon Dave Whiteman (Dreyfuss). Complications ensue, as they must, when Dave "rescues" the uncooperative and none-too-grateful Jerry and invites him to stay on as a houseguest until he gets back on his feet. A bum living in a fancy Beverly Hills mansion?!? Uh oh! You can practically hear those ol' cultures a-clashin' already, can't you? If all this sounds like the set-up for a situation comedy, you should know that Down and Out actually became a sitcom the very next year -- the very first series, in fact, to have the honor of being canceled by the Fox Network.

Anyway, Jerry adroitly improvises a sad but noble backstory to explain his slide into homelessness, and one by one he seduces (sometimes figuratively, often literally) each member of the skeptical Whiteman household: wife Barbara (Midler), daughter Jenny (Tracy Nelson), son Max (Evan Richard), Mexican maid Carmen (Elizabeth Peña), and family dog Matisse (Mike the Dog). Within the course of a few weeks (the plot unfolds between Thanksgiving and New Year's), Jerry manages to cure Barbara's sexual frigidity, Jenny's eating disorder, and Matisse's canine neurosis, while simultaneously introducing Carmen -- who had previously been having an affair with Dave but ditches him for Jerry -- to radical politics and helping androgynous, camera-toting Max come to terms with his homosexuality. This list of accomplishments is all the more impressive when you realize that Jerry mainly spends his days doing as little as possible, unless you consider sponging off Dave's resources to be an activity. Poor Dave, meanwhile, is first excited by the idea that a stranger is shaking things up and cutting through the family's usual sense of dysfunction and ennui, but soon our hapless hanger-maker begins to resent the fact that his family, right down to the dog, seems to prefer this interloper to him. (Dreyfuss had a similar dilemma in What About Bob? with Bill Murray.) Meanwhile, Little Richard turns up in the film now and again as the Whitemans' next-door neighbor, a record producer who looks, acts, and talks exactly like Little Richard. (Maybe this movie takes place in an alternate universe where there is no Little Richard, but then who's singing those oldies on the soundtrack?)

To the extent that any of this works, it is mainly due to the acting, especially that of Nick Nolte. It is somehow not surprising to learn that Nolte spent five weeks living as a homeless person in order to prepare for this role. Nolte is convincingly haggard and disheveled as Jerry Baskin, yet there is an undeniable charisma and magnetism to the character as well. (Though we now tend to associate him with that infamous mug shot, Nolte was crowned People's Sexiest Man Alive six years after this film!) A leftover from the 1960s generation, Jerry Baskin comes off as a cinematic first-cousin of Jeff Bridges's easygoing "Dude" from The Big Lebowski, only with an undercurrent of darkness and danger just beneath the calm surface. I must admit I was a little creeped out by what occurs between Jenny and Jerry. Jenny, you see, hasn't been eating -- though the term "anorexia" is never once mentioned (and this was after Karen Carpenter!) -- and Jerry "fixes" her in one night by having sex with her, despite a 20-year gap in their ages and the fact that he has to force himself on her during their first kiss. It's the kind of thinking you might see on display in a John Wayne movie: all the little filly ever needed was for a real man to take her by force. While we're at it, why is the word "gay" never actually uttered during the scenes with Max? His big "coming out" scene basically consists of him revealing to his father that he and his friends (a group which includes both boys and girls, I noted) like to dress up as Adam Ant occasionally. Didn't Dave already know that? I also cringed a little at how the movie handled the politicization of Carmen, reducing her radical awakening to a mere pose, just another silly fad for Mazursky to satirize. Oh, that silly Hispanic maid, thinking she can be more than a human sex toy!

Other than Nolte's performance as Jerry Baskin, the main reason to see Down and Out in Beverly Hills is to get a primer on how people's minds worked in the 1980s. Again, this was the time of Reagan, yuppies, and conspicuous consumerism. Our TV and movie screens were filled with fantasies of material wealth (from Dallas to Trading Places), and we had a seemingly boundless appetite for tales of lower-class characters who suddenly find themselves thrust into the world of class and privilege. But all this unchecked avarice must have aroused some guilt within us as well, because this was also the decade when the rich and famous were trying to prove how "concerned" and "responsible" they were by participating in showy charity events like USA for Africa, Live Aid, and Comic Relief. It is probably not a coincidence that a group of bums sings a sardonic parody of "We Are the World" in this movie, even though Bette Midler herself was one of the participants on that record. As America's satirists pointed out again and again in the 1980s, the wealthy weren't really concerned about anything other than themselves. They didn't care about the homeless or the whales or the rain forest. They just wanted to salve their own consciences and make themselves look good. In a way, the Whitemans' "adoption" of Jerry is a symptom of this phenomenon. What is Dave trying to prove by "helping" Jerry? Does Jerry even want Dave's help? If nothing else, Down and Out at least provides plenty of fodder for after-movie discussions. One more question to ponder: if the whole point of the movie is to show that there's more to life than money and material comfort, why is it a "happy" ending when the hero is rewarded with exactly those things? Imagine if the film had gone the other way, and the Whitemans had joined Jerry in living as bums on the street! Could Disney have signed off on that?

Unfortunately, I found Down and Out in Beverly Hills to be largely shrill and obvious, too often reducing its characters to cliches and stereotypes. When we are introduced to Dave, for instance, his dialogue consists of such tell-tale pronouncements as "Shut up, you putz!" and "My son, the filmmaker!" Then he goes into the bathroom and -- yuk, yuk -- his medicine cabinet is overstocked with stomachache and headache remedies. Gosh, I think the movie might be subtly trying to imply that Dave is Jewish! (I was reminded of that Onion article in which Woody Allen was accused of anti-Semitism for depicting all Jews as neurotic.) The best part of the movie is the middle, once Mazursky has established his characters and just shows them being themselves and behaving in at least a somewhat-believable way. I particularly enjoyed a post-coital scene between Midler and Nolte in which the former serenades the latter with a tender rendition of "You Belong To Me." And there's a good sequence in which Jerry convinces Dave to temporarily ditch his button-down routine and spend a day lazing around on the beach with the other bums. These moments feel noticeably less forced than the rest of the movie, because Mazursky is finally treating his characters as full-fledged human beings and not as grotesque puppets in his condescending satire.

Ruthless People is another 1986 Bette Midler comedy with money on its mind, but it isn't nearly as weighted down with conflicting messages and satirical baggage as Mazursky's film. Instead, this is simply an energetic, frequently tasteless romp whose only real goal is to be funny... and, brother, does it succeed in that respect. Oh, sure, the script pays occasional lip service to such dull, socially-respectable virtues as honesty, teamwork, and friendship. And, yes, the "good" characters in this movie do ultimately triumph over the "evil" ones. But let's not kid ourselves. Ruthless People exists mainly as a joyous tribute to the Seven Deadly Sins, an opportunity to revel in just how wonderfully rotten people can be, especially when money is involved. For such an assignment, there's no better actor to hire than Danny DeVito, and he's the (black) heart and (twisted) soul of this picture, giving a career-best performance as Sam Stone, a venal businessman who is delighted to learn that his rich-but-wretched wife, Barbara (Midler, natch), has been kidnapped because it saves him the trouble of having to kill her. Barbara's hapless captors are mild-mannered, definitely-not-cut-out-for-this-kind-of-thing couple Ken and Sandy Kessler (Judge Reinhold & Helen Slater), who want revenge on Sam because he stole Sandy's idea for the "spandex miniskirt." Meanwhile, Sam's sultry mistress Carol (Anita Morris) is scheming with her accomplice, a peroxided male bimbo named Earl Moss (Bill Pullman), to blackmail Sam with a videotape of Barbara's supposed murder. Only lunkhead Earl has accidentally videotaped the chief of police having noisy sex with a hooker instead. You see how a situation like this could quickly spiral out of control. Had all these people just stayed home and played bridge, imagine the trouble that could have been avoided!

So we've got all the ingredients here for a nicely nasty little dark comedy, and Ruthless People isn't about to let us down in that department. This film, whose ingenious Dale Lautner-penned screenplay owes a little something (but not that much) to O. Henry's "The Ransom of Red Chief," turned out to be the last project co-directed by the beloved ZAZ team of Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and David Zucker. We may tend to think of those wacky ZAZ boys as a three-headed creature sharing one body, but in truth they only co-directed three flicks: this one, Airplane! and Top Secret. We also associate them with the parody film subgenre, and Ruthless People ain't that. If Down and Out was a textbook comedy of manners, Ruthless is a textbook farce. We've got all the elements: an increasingly wild and far-fetched plot which nimbly incorporates mistaken identities, double entendres, slapstick, innuendos, broadly exaggerated performances, lightning-fast repartee, and (as per the traditions of the genre) an elaborate climactic chase scene. What's more, like all the best farces, Ruthless People, deftly weaves in a variety of disparate (and often desperate) characters, settings, and plotlines into a cohesive, unified whole. There's not a hair out of place, so to speak. When a genuine homicidal maniac somehow staggers his way into the plot in the film's latter stages, for instance, it might initially strike the viewer as as an errant, discordant note. But the movie has a definite purpose for this character, bizarre as he is, and he serves a specific plot function. I admire the hell out of Dale Lautner's writing in this film, the way he keeps all these different plates spinning -- Sam Stone and the cops on the case, Barbara and her captors, Carol and Earl, etc. As someone who has taken a few stabs at comedic writing over the years, I know I simply do not possess the discipline and organizational skills necessary to craft this kind of intricate farce. I reacted to this movie the same way I reacted to A Confederacy of Dunces, Fawlty Towers and the best episodes of Seinfeld: I loved it so much I was jealous. I've been a musician for over 20 years now, too (nothing too terribly sexy, mind you, just the euphonium), and this combination of love and jealousy I get from great comedic writing is analogous to the emotions I experience when I hear true virtuosos play. I am both delighted and humbled. How do they do that? I could try and try for the rest of my life and never be able to duplicate that. I've been struggling these last few months to learn Dimitri Shostakovich's Festive Overture, and it's actually a little depressing to know that there are dozens of recordings in which professional musicians tear through the piece as if it were no more challenging than "Turkey in the Straw." Me, I start to get lightheaded somewhere around the top of page 2.

I feel I must single out the opening sequence of Ruthless People, because watching it is like sitting in an orchestra hall as a brilliant musician plays a marvelously tricky concerto -- hitting all the notes, of course, but also wringing every last drop of music out of the piece. The scene in question, set at a restaurant dubiously named the "Cafe Ruthless," has Sam explaining to his mistress Carol exactly why he wants to kill his wife. Carol's heard this story many times before, but Sam insists on telling it yet again. It immediately becomes clear that Sam indeed has told -- or, more accurately, performed -- this story over and over, because he really milks it with his inflection, pauses, and facial expressions. There are occasional interruptions both by the mistress and by a waiter during this scene, but this is really a monologue for Danny DeVito, and it's proof of what a sensational comic actor he is. (If you haven't caught any of DeVito's recent work on It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, please do so.) I smile just thinking about the way DeVito delivers lines like "I hate the way she licks stamps!" and "My only regret is that the plan isn't more violent." Sam's monologue begins with a description of how his wealthy father-in-law somehow managed to live for years after his life support was unplugged, and there's wonderful music in the way DeVito angrily repeats the words "older and sicker." Of course, credit for this scene -- and the whole movie, really -- must also be shared with the "composer" (Lautner) and the three "conductors" (the ZAZ team). The music metaphor might be coughing and wheezing at this point, but it's the best way I know how to describe this film.

Before I leave Ruthless People, let me point out that this film belongs to a very noble cinematic tradition: the kidnapping comedy. Some of my favorite flicks of all time -- from The King of Comedy to The Big Lebowski -- have been built around what the professionals call K&R. (That's kidnap and ransom.) Recently, the radio show This American Life interviewed a man named Daniel Johnson who oversees "kidnapping response operations" for a company called ASI Global. That basically means he's in the kidnapping insurance business. During his interview with Ira Glass, Mr. Johnson gave a few pointers to remember if you are ever kidnapped. I thought it might be instructive to see how well this movie's kidnapping victim, Barbara Stone, played by the rules of the K&R game:

1. Keep your mind active. Don't sleep all day. -- So far, so good. Barbara starts out by lazing in bed all day, but during her captivity she becomes obsessed with physical fitness and even gets some workout montages set to Billy Joel's "Modern Woman."

2. Eat what they give you because it's probably what they're eating, too. -- Well, Barbara didn't do so hot on this one. She ate the food her captors offered, but not without loud and frequent complaints.

3. Don't try to escape. -- We're 1 for 3 here. Barbara does try to escape, and though she does not immediately succeed, she proves more than a physical match for her captors.

4. Don't look your captors in the eye. Don't be confrontational. -- As this is Bette Midler we're talking about here, I think you know the answer to this one. 1 for 4.

5. Don't try to negotiate for your release. Don't discuss finances with your captors. -- Yikes! I think finances are the #1 topic of conversation in virtually every scene between Barbara and the kidnappers. 1 for 5.

So Barbara didn't follow the rules very well. But she managed to survive anyway -- not only survive but become BFFs with the kidnappers! (The overly sugary nature of the kidnapper/victim relationship is one of my few major complaints about this movie. Well, that and the fact that Sandy's supposedly brilliant clothing designs are horrendous.) If you are ever kidnapped, reader, do not expect to end up frolicking on the beach with the same people who grabbed you, took you from your home, and threw you into the back of a VW van. That's probably not going to happen outside of a 1980s Touchstone movie. But strangely enough, the kidnapping in Ruthless People does conform to much of what Mr. Johnson said on the radio. A kidnapping for ransom, he explained, is just a business deal. The captors need to keep you alive to get their money. And, happily, you will most likely get out of a K&R situation alive. It's just a matter of coming to a price. That touchy subject of "price" is a major sticking point in this film and leads to several hilarious telephone exchanges between Judge Reinhold and Danny DeVito, not to mention Bette Midler's iconic line once she learns Reinhold has offered DeVito a discount on the ransom: "I've been kidnapped by Kmart!"

Most of all, Daniel Johnson tells us, you have two main responsibilities as a kidnapping victim: stay alive and don't panic. And Bette has both of those down cold.

"Let's face it, she's not Mother Theresa. Gandhi would've strangled her." - JUDGE REINHOLD, amateur kidnapper extraordinaire

Well, now that Joe has had his say, it's my turn, and let me tell you right up front, I'm going to have a lot more to write about Ruthless People than I will about Down and Out in Beverly Hills. This is not because Down and Out is a bad movie. (Roger Ebert even gave it four stars back in the day.) It's just that it pales in comparison with Ruthless, which is much more sprightly and inventive. Put it down to the generation gap, I guess. Director/co-writer Paul Mazursky was firmly in his mid-50s when he made Down and Out, whereas the ZAZ team ranged in age from 36 to 42 when they tackled Ruthless. (For some reason I always thought they were much closer in age, but I guess not.) Based on the evidence here, the daring filmmaker who had once scandalized Middle America with a bold comedy about partner-swapping clearly had lost some of his satirical bite in the ensuing years. Then again, that's probably why Disney came calling on him in the first place. For Touchstone's initial venture into R-rated territory (after PG-rated fare like Splash, Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend and My Science Project), no doubt they wanted to work with a reasonably known quantity.

For his part, Mazursky must have felt the same way since he based his script (written with frequent collaborator Leon Capetanos, who also co-wrote Tempest, Moscow on the Hudson and Moon Over Parador) on the same play as Jean Renoir's highly cynical 1932 masterpiece Boudu Saved from Drowning, which contains an indelible performance by Michel Simon as the title character. Instead of a Parisian bookseller fishing a tramp out of the Seine, though, Mazursky's update gives us a Beverly Hills hanger tycoon (Richard Dreyfuss) who feels some twinges of guilt over his success pulling a suicidal bum (Nick Nolte) out of his swimming pool. This act of charity makes Dreyfuss feel better about himself in the short run, but leads to unexpected consequences, most of which Joe detailed above. It must be said, though, that the member of the family Nolte has the most simpatico relationship with is the rather ubiquitous dog, Matisse, who is so neurotic that it's seeing a dog psychiatrist.

As one might expect, the film gets a lot of mileage out of detailing the excesses of the excessively rich. (For this reason, it would likely play very well on a double bill with Paul Bartel's Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills, and not just because both take place in the same area code.) In addition to the dog psychiatrist, there are gags about yogis sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner with the family and Iranian expatriates living next door. Some of the most trenchant observations, though, are reserved for their other neighbor, record producer Little Richard, who complains vociferously about the disparity of service when a tripped alarm brings an immediate response to the Dreyfuss clan's residence. He doesn't get half as many reaction shots as the damned dog, though. I swear, Mazursky must have put it in every scene just so he could cut to it at will. Not that there's anything inherently wrong with cutting to a dog to get a laugh, but it does get old after a while.

To be fair, a dog also features into the mise-en-scène of Ruthless People, but Muffy, the yappy little poodle belonging to kidnapped heiress Bette Midler that makes life a living hell for unfaithful clothing tycoon Danny DeVito while he tries to string along both the kidnappers who have taken her and the police who think he's trying to get her back, is much more solidly integrated into the action. The same thing goes for the music, from Mick Jagger's theme song (which has largely been supplanted in my brain by "Weird Al" Yankovic's parody "Toothless People") on down to Billy Joel's "Modern Woman" and Bruce Springsteen's "Stand On It" (which is quite appropriately used to establish the trailer park where blue-collar blackmailer Bill Pullman lives). Then there's Michel Colombier's score, which fits the pattern of a lot of '80s comedies by playing it relatively straight and not overselling the wacky hijinks. That also goes for the music erstwhile Police guitarist Andy Summers contributed to Down and Out, which can be downright moody at times, but the song selections leave a bit more to be desired. For example, a snippet of Randy Newman's "I Love L.A." is included during a driving scene, but it doesn't stick around long enough to get to the chorus. (The ZAZ team would correct this oversight by setting an entire montage in The Naked Gun to the same tune.) And Little Richard's "Great Gosh A'Mighty (It's A Matter Of Time)" -- a song written specifically for the film -- mostly serves as the soundtrack for the climactic party scene where Mazursky essentially throws up his hands in defeat and throws everything into the pool in order to bring all of his subplots to a head at once. Meanwhile, Little Richard keeps banging away at the piano and singing his heart out despite the fact that there's no longer anybody watching him. I suppose he could have stopped playing to find out what the ruckus was all about, but it's just as likely that he wasn't interested in what those crazy white people were up to anyway. Far better is the film's use of Talking Heads' "Once in a Lifetime" over the opening and closing credits. For all of Nolte's platitudes about change and personal transformation, the refrain "Same as it ever was" turns out to be far more apt.

But getting back to Ruthless People, the tone of the film is set not only by the opening scene between DeVito and his mistress, but also by the ridiculous furnishings in the house he shares with Midler, who evidently did the decorating because the only normal-looking room is DeVito's home office, which I suspect was his inner sanctum. You simply can't sit anywhere else in the house and expect to be comfortable, which would be reason enough for anyone to want to kill their interior decorator. Eager to set his plan into motion, DeVito goes from room to room, chloroform-soaking handkerchief in hand, calling out his wife's name in vain. Finally he collapses into one of their impractical chairs and listlessly takes the phone call from Midler's kidnappers. As he does so, it's hard not to share DeVito's growing elation as he listens to Judge Reinhold's instructions, realizing that he won't have to do his own dirty work after all. This is soon followed by Midler's grand entrance and a humdinger of a first line -- "You've fucked with the wrong person!" -- which quickly confirms everything we've heard about her. Then comes one of the most well-timed edits I've ever seen in a comedy: Midler is railing against her captors, telling them that her husband "worships the ground I walk on. When he hears about this, he will explooooode!" Immediate shock-cut to DeVito popping the cork on a bottle of champagne, which spurts all over the place. The ejaculatory allusion is unmistakable, but in addition to getting a huge laugh it also speaks volumes about how self-deluded Midler's character is. No wonder she's apoplectic when, having had a few conversations with an increasingly uncooperative DeVito, Reinhold sits her down and asks point blank whether her husband loves her. How dare he?

Some of my favorite moments in the film detail DeVito's dealings with the cops on the case, who are headed up by the infinitely patient Art Evans and Clarence Felder. He gets so chummy with some of them, in fact, that a few policemen seem to take up permanent residence at his house, and one is genuinely disappointed when DeVito becomes a suspect and has to be arrested. (A terrific background detail is the shot where we see two uniformed cops playing tennis on DeVito's private court off in the distance. Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker don't get a lot of credit for their subtle jokes, but they're there if you're willing to look hard enough for them.) I also like their lightning-quick response when a would-be mugger tries to make off with DeVito's briefcase during a fake ransom drop. ("This town has got some Neighborhood Watch," the overwhelmed mugger quips.) And one of the biggest laughs in the film comes in a rather unexpected place, when DeVito is brought down to the morgue to possibly identify his wife's body. ("That's not her," he matter-of-factly states when he's shown a middle-aged black man.)

Meanwhile, on the other side of town, there's nothing subtle at all about the way Midler deals with her desperate and increasingly frazzled captors. First she's verbally abusive, then she's physically abusive when she frees herself and nearly escapes their clutches. And finally she makes outrageous demands of Helen Slater (by far the meekest kidnapper in the history of K&R) and freaks her out by acting out various death penalties. (She tries out similar psychological warfare on Reinhold, but he evidently has thicker skin.) For his part, Reinhold illustrates his lack of a killer instinct (also known as a conscience) at his day job as an electronics salesman at Crazy Bob's. Sure, there's the scene where he unwittingly emasculates a potential customer's boyfriend by running down his choice of speaker, but Reinhold's defining moment comes later on (after DeVito has, out of exasperation, dared him to kill Midler) when he coaxes a metalhead into "The Big Room" and is on the verge of selling the kid a speaker so enormous (and so overpriced) that he'll be paying it off for years. He backs off immediately, though, when the kid is joined by his heavily pregnant girlfriend. Ruthlessness just isn't in the man's DNA.

Also meanwhile, there is the ever-evolving saga of DeVito's conniving mistress (Anita Morris, who actually played the Bette Midler role in the TV version of Down and Out) and her moron of an accomplice (Pullman), who uses a Dustbuster of all things for foreplay and names his goldfish after Miami Vice's Crockett and Tubbs. The sequence of events that starts with Pullman videotaping philandering chief of police William G. Schilling (who went on to play the principal on Head of the Class) and ends with Schilling hastily fleeing the country in the mistaken belief that he's about to exposed as a sex maniac could make a terrific short film in its own right. I'm especially fond of the split-screens used for Morris's increasingly outrageous phone calls with Schilling. (That's a device that definitely needs to be used more often, and not just by Brian De Palma.) That the payoff has Morris and Pullman commandeering a VCR in a home electronics store is the icing on the cake.

Finally, things come to a head and DeVito is forced to actually pay Midler's ransom so he can get her back and prove to the police that he hasn't killed her. (I find it amusing that when he's arraigned and the judge, who's played by the Zuckers' mother Charlotte, sets his bail at $700,000 -- a full $200,000 more than the kidnappers initially asked for -- he pays it without batting an eye.) As one might expect, the ransom drop goes far from smoothly -- DeVito for one is loath to part with what amounts to his total net worth -- but the police are present to make sure things go off in a relatively hitchless fashion. Even they have a little trouble, though, when the stupidest person on the face of the Earth (guess who) shows up and attempts to throw a monkey wrench into the works. (You know you're in trouble when you're having a discussion with a guy in a clown mask and you have to ask if you're the one that looks stupid.) In a lot of ways, the climax of Ruthless People is like the rest of the film in miniature, with the stakes being raised by the minute and everybody trying to come out on top. Sure, virtue wins out in the end and DeVito gets his comeuppance, but there's no reason to complain about such a tidy resolution as long as it's funny.

Up Next: Taking a cue from one of Bette Midler's more family-friendly Disney ventures, 1993's supernatural comedy Hocus Pocus, we tackle a pair of films about witchy women and the men who don't know what the hell to do with them, much like Bill Pullman probably doesn't know what to do with this gun:


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You forgot to include the Nick Nolte mug shot from a few years back.
That's Down and Out in Beverly Hills.

I included a mention of Nolte's mug shot, but we didn't feel it was necessary to include the actual picture when that shot of Nolte eating dog food kind of says it all about the man. That picture, by the way, is not from the movie but was taken during the wrap party.

Oh, Joe. Always the kidder.

Who's kidding? Just as Nolte (Mr. Method Actor himself) prepared to play a homeless man by actually living on the streets for five weeks, he bonded with his co-star Mike the Dog by sharing both a trailer and a food dish with the animal. The results are all up there on the screen, but Nolte did have to have a distemper shot. (Mike the Dog, meanwhile, parlayed his fame from this movie into appearances on SNL and the cover of Mad, plus a role in the Down & Out sitcom.)

By the way, Craig, I'm glad you brought up the relentlessly "zany" party sequence in Down and Out, especially the way poor Little Richard is just left stranded, playing for nobody, and they keep awkwardly cutting back to him. It looked like the filmmakers were totally out of ideas by that point in the movie, so they just had everybody jump into the swimming pool, i.e. the 1980s equivalent of a pie fight. I much preferred the aftermath of the party, which begins brilliantly with showing the mariachi band's sombreros floating in the pool and the slow revelation of all the members of the household sleeping in lounge chairs outside. But then the ending turns sappy again, and there's an unforgiveable shot of the entire Whiteman family smiling beatifically at Jerry. Ugh!

All in all, the best part of the Down & Out experience was having a reason/excuse to see the Renoir film. I remember that movie actually did get some arthouse bookings back in the '80s because of Mazursky's remake. (My mother subscribed to the New Yorker back then, and the movie would show up in the "now playing" section.) Unlike Jerry, Boudu is not presented as any kind of sage or guru or savior of the household. He's more like a talking version of Harpo Marx, a cheerfully destructive, lust-crazed anarchist. As you point out, the Renoir film is much more cynical than the Mazursky film. I'd say it's more honest, too. Though Boudu is often a funny film, its ending is subtly devastating, with none of the false uplift of the remake. Both films exist to satirize the social classes, but the Renoir film isn't quite so pushy and obvious about it. And the family in the Renoir film has no children -- a definite point in that movie's favor, because the subplots involving the kids in Down & Out are troublingly simplistic and shallow.

I really like these reviews, by the way -- I've just been so mired in sloth, facebook nonsense, and attempts at escaping sloth of late that I haven't been able to take the time for proper commentary.

I remember not being interested in even the slightest when this movie came out, as I was a pretty strict fantasy and science-fiction kid at the time. However, I think I rented it on video not long after its release, as my parents wanted to see it, and I was quite shocked at how much I enjoyed it.

Hey, Alex.

Thanks for posting your comments. Craig and I have put a lot of effort into these '80s articles, so we're always grateful when people actually read the darned things. Ruthless People was a real treat to revisit, and this series has introduced me to some films like Explorers and Buckaroo Banzai that I probably should've seen years ago.

We should have a new article up in a couple of days, so look out for that.

Incidentally, Ruthless People might be the first film in this project to pass the Bechdel Test. That means it contains at least 2 female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man. TV shows routinely pass the Bechdel Test, but movies rarely do. So good for you, Ruthless People.

I meant both movies, oddly enough. Neither was a film I particularly *wanted* to see at the time, but did. And then enjoyed. The former quite a bit more than the latter; but both nonetheless.

There was a charm to mainstream films of this sort back then -- I think it was a charm that came from not yet having fully dispensed with narrative cohesiveness, like so many films would do in the decade that followed. Plus, they often featured a lot of good actors who were in their primes at the time.

Anyway, I'm off to bed, hoping to get to sleep before the sun comes up for once. I actually have several pictures and a story sitting around that I want to post here, but I have to make myself just sit down and effing do it. Facebook games are no one's friend...

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This page contains a single entry by Joe Blevins and Craig J. Clark published on June 10, 2010 3:00 PM.

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